The Forgotten Riley

I’ve been driving classics pretty much on a daily basis since I got my licence in 1976.

The first was a bright yellow 1960s Mini which drank oil, but aside from that was a lot of fun to drive. This was followed by a succession of VW Beetles, the first being mum’s, then three MGBs. All of these I owned while living in Sydney. I left these shores in 1988 after graduating, to work in London – primarily I wanted to see the land of my parents and catch up with relatives whom I’d never met.

After settling, thoughts turned quickly to motoring and it wasn’t going to be some bland modern. In the course of buying a Triumph GT6 Mk3, I became good friends with the seller, John. In 1990 he had a hankering for a large 1950s classic to add to his collection, but without going down the well-trodden path of a Jaguar or such like.

He brought my attention to a vehicle I’d never heard of before, a 1958 Riley 2.6 (or Two-Point-Six in Riley-speak) that was for sale in Yorkshire. It looked very similar to a Riley Pathfinder and the Wolseley 6/90. He’d looked previously at getting a Pathfinder, but finding a good one was proving difficult. Perhaps the 2.6 would suffice?

But what was a 2.6 and how did it fit into the Riley story? We couldn’t find any decent sources for information back then, apart from very basic and short references in contemporary texts.

The following Saturday we headed north in his Rover P5B Coupe to a small nondescript town in Yorkshire where the Riley was garaged in a large shipping container. A rather large and well-rounded grey rump greeted us as she was gently reversed out; no doubt a little irritated at being woken from her slumber.

It’s a big car with bench seating, and three-abreast front and back was no problem. This example was an automatic with column change, though there was a manual version with Riley’s unorthodox floor-mounted gear change next to the driver’s door, as used on the Pathfinder (individual front seats could also be specified for the 2.6, plus Overdrive on the manual car if desired).

The car was in very good order: low mileage; near mint interior, with very minor rust. Steering it was interesting: non-power assisted on large and old cross-ply tyres, calling for much effort on the tiller. The price was right, so John quickly made the deal.

He owned the Riley for a few years, after which I bought it from him in 1993. I had always liked it. Unfortunately, little to no history came with the car when bought in Yorkshire, aside from the fact it appeared to have had a good few owners, but was little driven.

Badge Engineering

In time I gleaned much information on the car. The Riley Two-Point-Six replaced the Pathfinder in production when it was announced on 23 August 1957. The Pathfinder was introduced in 1953 as the RMH and had been designed by Gerald Palmer (along with the Wolseley 6/90) before the 1952 merger of the Riley-parent company, the Nuffield Organisation, with Austin to form BMC.

The Pathfinder and the 6/90 were essentially Nuffield designs, but now that both companies were under the BMC yoke, this meant rationalisation of parts and the beginnings of BMC’s ‘infamous’ badge engineering which, in some eyes, so diluted the Riley image.

Introduced in 1954 and based on the Riley Pathfinder, but with a higher body and using the C-series engine, the Wolseley 6/90 had reached Series III guise by 1957, with an enlarged rear windscreen, semi-elliptic leaf springs (replacing the coil spring over damper of the Series I) and the Pathfinder’s gearstick on the right side of the driver (on manual models).

From Wolseley’s perspective it made sense for the 6/90 to use the Austin C-Series engine, as Wolseley’s only in-house six-cylinder was the somewhat dated 2215cc OHC from 1948.

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The BMC Experience Issue 20. Jan-Mar 2017 Magazine

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